I have always been a great fan of non-realistic portraits. I enjoy viewing non-realistic portraits because I personally believe that in that way, the artist lets his creativity shine, and in a way, the painting he creates expresses his thoughts and ideas about the person illustrated. Thus the artist does not depict a person realistically, but he paints his feelings, thoughts and beliefs.
I was very excited when I read that works of Egon Schiele, one of my favorite artists that focused more on portrait paintings, were exhibited in Courtauld Gallery in London. Born in Vienna, Egon Schiele was a leading avant-garde artist in the early 1900s, the years around the First World War. During his short but very productive life, Egon Schiele managed to create a great collection of portraits (including self portraits) that were consider to be provocative, controversial but most importantly, some of the most radical depictions of the human figure in the 20th century.
This is the first time that original works of Egon Schiele were exhibited as a single collection in the United Kingdom and I felt very special to be a part of that. The exhibition was small, and included a small collection of his drawings and watercolour works. I wish I could see some of his oil paintings that illustrate his unique technique and skill, but I was surprised by how much detail he successfully created using humble materials such as pencil, chalk and watercolours.
The exhibition was divided in two small rooms. The first room included his famous self-portraits where the second room was focusing more on his collection of female figures, his ‘nudes’.
What I find extraordinary about Schiele is the way he planned, understood and then created his self-portraits. The artist used a number of different mirrors and techniques in order to observe the increasingly extreme poses he adopted. In a way, todays ‘selfies’ could be considered to be a modernised version of Schiele’s technique of looking at his bod and understanding his own anatomical structure. He was fascinated by the human figure and the different forms he could create with his own body as well as the angles and shapes that his figure could take. He sacrificed anatomical accuracy for the sake of his paintings; he distorted body figures by elongating the back of a figure, cropping the figures legs or arms, making their heads smaller or larger, based on the feeling he wanted to portray. In a way, he would treat the human figure as a blank canvas; he would choose to shape it based on the message he wanted to convey, his ideas and feelings and not on the traditional anatomical structure of the human form.
The second room includes a small collection of his famous nudes. The portraits created are again non-realistic and the figures are distorted in the same way as his self-portraits. . The theme of his paintings though is not the distortion of the human figure, but the female sexuality and how that can be illustrated through a painting. For his portraits, Egon Schiele painted some of his family members; his wife but he also used random women as well as a lot of prostitutes. The images exhibited were very bold and sexual. In his nude paintings, he draws in detail some of his models private body parts making his works raw, fleshy and unflinching. Some characterise his work as too disturbing and sometimes grotesque. Too erotic, too radical, too offensive, too controversial, but as the artist thought, sex is beautiful and the nude body is poetic.
Walking inside the exhibition space, I could not help but notice the way people moved inside the space, and viewed the art works presented. The nude paintings were the ones that people seemed to enjoy the most, and spent more time in front of. More specifically, people seemed to pay more attention to the most sexual and erotic paintings, the ones that showed the female genitals in detail. I wondered why was that? I tried to monitor their moves and understand them. I saw young girls moving close to the paintings, talking quietly and laughing with each other. I saw older people turning their heads from one side to the other, looking at each other and communicating through their eyes. Were they disturbed by the raw imagery, or were they simply intrigued? I could never know, but what is certain is that the raw nudity and sexuality is something that is always going to be disturbing, controversial and create conversations.
I personally was impressed by Schiele’s astonishing technique and use of materials. The artist managed to use humble materials such as pencil, charcoal and watercolours and create such bold lines and figures. His use of colours gives his figures a fuller shape, balances his shading and makes the bodies come alive. I also enjoyed the fact that Schiele has no context in his drawings. He simply places his bodies inside his frame, with no justification for being there. He does not place the figures proportionately inside the frame, in most cases the figures ‘don’t fit’ inside the frame and different body parts (head, legs, arms) seem to be left out of the picture.
Going against the norm, distorting his figures, using grotesque bodies, provocative and sexual imagery are only a few things that Egon Schiele managed to do through his work. This unique way of perceiving and creating art is what draws me to Schiele’s work and what in my opinion makes him one of the most important and unique artists that ever existed.
Here is some information for the Exhibition:
Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House
Strand, London, WC2R 0RN
The exhibition will be available until the 18th of January, 2015
Daily 10am – 6mp (Last admission 5.30pm)
Tickets from £5 – £8.50 (Free for Friends)
I would love to read your comments below!
Thank you for reading,